Uncovering Boston's radical history

A People's History of the New Boston

Growing up in Boston you don’t learn about Mel King or Ruth Batson, local grassroots Black leaders who had a tremendous influence on the city’s history. In school, you aren’t taught that on February 26, 1964, twenty thousand Black students organized a one-day strike and attended Freedom Schools set up by civil rights activists to pressure the School Committee to desegregate the public school system. You never learn that Martin Luther King, Jr. led a multi-racial march of twenty thousand on the Boston Commons in January 1965 to bring national attention to the city’s fight for school integration. 

You’re never told about the working class and poor families in the South End who built a tent city in 1968 to put a stop to urban renewal, or the working-class Mothers of Maverick Street in East Boston who blockaded roads and shut down highways to prevent Mass Port from destroying their homes. Most millennials probably have no idea that until 1996 Boston had rent control, fought for and won by a multi-racial Tenants Rights Movement that didn’t just protest, but took over City Hall in 1976. 

In his comprehensive and accessible new book, A People’s History of the New Boston, Jim Vrabel does more than just tell the history of Boston. He uncovers and keeps alive a rich, vibrant tradition of collective struggle from below and grassroots organizing that played a tremendous role in shaping the city’s history. 

In 1949 Boston’s old Irish Catholic political machine which ran the city for most of the twentieth century came crumbling down when Michael Curley was defeated by John Hynes in the mayoral race. Hynes collaborated with the business class, finance capital, and big developers to transform Boston from a decaying, deindustrialized, forgotten-about city to a thriving center of business. To carry out his plans, Hynes jumped on board the federal governments new urban renewal program set up to help revitalize cities by creating new markets for capital investment and accumulation. 

Urban renewal produced a range of community-based struggles against displacement and gentrification across the city throughout the 1960’s and ’70s as working class and poor families struggled to shape the character of the “New Boston.” Vrabel spends much of the book excavating and bringing to life this exiting and inspiring history. 

My favorite story is about the movement in Charlestown, Boston’s oldest neighborhood. After witnessing the complete destruction of the West End neighborhood early on in the “renewal” process, residents understood the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—the agency tasked with carrying out urban renewal—was not on their side. It took nearly five years, but through a consistent campaign of independent grassroots organizing, and some unruly, militant protests at public hearings, the working-class and poor families of Charlestown were able to force the BRA to back down from it’s plan of demolishing 60 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock to only 10 percent, forcing it instead to invest most of its money in building up public infrastructure that would benefit community members. 

Vrabel devotes an entire chapter to the city’s Vietnam antiwar movement. While he uncovers some important and exciting history that’s hard to find in other histories of Boston, like the fact that the National Vietnam Moratorium protest in the Boston Commons on October 15, 1969, drew out more than 100,000 people and included a wide, diverse range of people, he downplays the role domestic antiwar protests played in changing public opinion on the war and forcing the United States to withdraw from Vietnam.

This comes out most clearly in his absurd claim that the nationwide campus strikes of 1971 against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos—which involved nearly five million students at some five thousand schools, and to this date remains the largest student strike in American history—only sapped an already dying movement of energy. Vrabel also comes close to recycling the myth that student protesters treated returning veterans with hostility by focusing on the anti-movement sentiments of some South Boston veterans. While he does include a quote from an SDS activist that this hostility was unfounded, there’s little mention in his book of the incredible G.I. resistance movement and no discussion of the hugely significant role played by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 

Although the two chapters on the Black-led struggle for school desegregation in the 1960s are excellent, the same cannot be said for Vrabel’s chapter on the anti-busing movement. Unfortunately, Vrabel defends the racist anti-busing movement and wrongly draws the conclusion that it represented a “people’s movement” against government intrusion at the hands of political elites. 

Unlike other community struggles against government intrusion to remake neighborhoods in the interests of capital that brought working-class and poor families together across the color line, the anti-busing crusade was a movement initiated and led by political elites to defend racist oppression and segregation and maintain white supremacist control over the city’s political institutions. Rather than uniting Boston’s working class, the anti-busing movement intensified white racism and stoked horrifying racist violence against Black students, further intensifying racial divisions and keeping different sections of the city’s working class needlessly pitted each other. 

Like all reforms under capitalism, Boston’s school desegregation plan was partial and left suburban/urban segregation intact. However, it was still a major blow to racism and had the potential to undermine the effects of residential segregation and pave the way for a more united, interracial working-class movement in the city. But thanks to the racist anti-busing movement that Vrabel celebrates, that reality never came into being. 

Vrabel’s conclusion about the anti-busing movement isn’t just a political mistake, but flows from his flawed analysis that the internal logic of economic struggles will on their own push ordinary people to overcome racism. While he’s certainly right that struggles around shared economic interests have the potential to unite people, he misses the fact that they also require an explicit fight against racial oppression. Unsurprisingly, his economic reductionism leads him to pay virtually no attention to other important movements taking place at the time, like the women’s and gay liberation movements. 

While A People’s History of the New Boston has some serious shortcomings that cannot be overlooked, it’s still a useful and hope-inspiring book. At a time when the ruling class’s plans for our cities can seem inevitable, Vrabel reminds us that they aren’t. By uncovering an important history of working-class struggle that played a crucial role in shaping Boston’s history and contrasting it with the Boston of today, Vrabel provides activists with important stories about the power of collective struggle from below and independent organizing. A People’s History of the New Boston should be read and debated by activists in Boston and beyond, and it’s lessons taken into the many struggles that lay ahead to win the cities we deserve. 

Issue #82

March 2012

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